Pictured Above: Tomás Avila, Victor Capellán, Patricia Martínez, Alida Balderra, Lydia Pérez, Norelys Consuegra, Delia Masjoan-Rodríguez, Marta V. Martínez, Mercedes “Betty” Bernal, Juán Pichardo. Photos by Salvatore Mancini • 2001

Nuestras Raíces: An Oral History Project of the Rhode Island Latino Community

The Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island began in 1991 when I met and recorded the memories of Josefina Rosario who had been co-owner (with her husband, Tony) of Fefa’s Market, the first bodega in Rhode Island. Later, I met with and recorded the voices of many other Latino pioneers, among them factory workers, community activists, social service providers, artists, elected officials, educators and others.

As the project moved forward, I chose to focus on the four largest Latino groups, based on the 1990 Census: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Guatemalans. Twenty years later, the 2010 Census showed that these four groups were still the largest and fastest-growing in the state, and that the overall growth of the Hispanic population was significant compared to the greater population of Rhode Island.

As I write this, the 2020 Census is just around the corner, and I can't wait to see what the numbers will show!

The Spanish word
“raíces” means “roots” in English, and this word explains what this project is all about: It is about the history — the beginnings and growth — of the Latino community of Rhode Island. It is about the first Dominican families; the first Colombian mill workers; the first Guatemalan jewelry workers who came to Rhode Island. It is about the first Hispanic physicians to open a health clinic on Broad Street; the first Latino students who enrolled in the public schools; and the first Hispanic police officer in the state. The most important observation I discovered through this project is that until the mid-1950s there was no evidence of significant numbers of Latinos anywhere in the state of Rhode Island!

The life of a long-ago immigrant or a recent arrival to America is a particularly rich topic for exploration through oral history. It is not easy to trace the personal lives of those who first made their way to America as far back as the turn-of-the 20th century, when America and Rhode Island first began receiving countless immigrants from Europe. However, as I set out to do this project, I found it relatively easy to find individuals who came to Rhode Island from Latin-America, and that was because Latinos began arriving and settling here as recently as the 1950s. Today, there are countless Latinos still living in Rhode Island with vivid memories of their first arrival to this state during those early years.

This project captures only a few important stories, and I hope to continue collecting many more Latino voices.

Would you like to add your story to this collection? Do you know someone whose story should be in this collection? Fill out the
online form and I'll contact you right away.

- Marta V. Martínez
Community Oral Historian
Nuestras Raices, Project Director